Debate: Is Kirby Smart good enough to lead loaded Georgia to SEC East title in 2017?
Georgia is loaded.
Nick Chubb and Sony Michel are returning, giving the Bulldogs the most dangerous RB-QB package in the SEC East. Defensive stalwarts are back as well. Offensive line help is on the way.
What does all of this December good news mean?
Expect the Bulldogs to receive the full-court preseason press of expectations. Is a top 10 national ranking out of the question? Hardly. They entered this season ranked No. 18 despite the fact they had a rookie head coach, lacked a proven quarterback and nobody knew what Chubb could provide.
Now the question becomes: Is Kirby Smart good enough to get it done? It’s the same question we asked last offseason about Butch Jones leading Tennessee’s loaded roster and something we’ve been debating since Chubb and Michel decided to return to Athens.
Answer: The simple answer: yes.
Remember, Will Muschamp won 11 games at Florida in 2012, although he didn’t make it to the SEC Championship Game. With that being said, Kirby Smart will have arguably the top two running backs in the SEC East returning, and he’ll have the quarterback with the highest ceiling in the SEC East. Smart’s strength is his ability to coach defense, and that aspect should improve next season, too.
Will Smart sustain success at Georgia? That’s an entirely different question, but any coach can catch lightning in a bottle during one season. And with the SEC East being as weak as it is, Smart can certainly take the Bulldogs to Atlanta in 2017.
The learning curve of being a head coach in the SEC East is steep, but he’ll be much better prepared to make in-game decisions next season.
I would look for the media to pick the Bulldogs as the SEC East preseason champions at SEC Media Days.
— Jon Cooper, director of operations
Answer: I think that ultimately Jim Chaney is the one who needs to be under the microscope in Year 2. Because of the nature of being a head coach, though, any poor performance will reflect back on Smart. There might have been a learning curve for Smart, but that wasn’t unexpected.
During the regular season, there is very little time for coaches to self-evaluate, as their primary focus is on their team and the opponent. Smart did make mistakes, yes. Even some that more or less cost the Bulldogs a couple of games. But, like the myriad of freshmen and sophomores on this team, Smart’s second year should be one of improvement. If the same problems occur, then this discussion should be revisited, but a coach’s legacy isn’t set in stone after his first season.
We all know that Smart has proven he is a talented and capable recruiter. Next season, he should have more players that fit his scheme. Much of the argument surrounding Georgia in 2016 was whether the fault lay with the coaching or the talent. I believe it was a bit of both. The talent was in place for an offense and defense that Smart didn’t run. There was talent, but it wasn’t necessarily the right talent. However, the coaches didn’t adjust to the talent on hand. Smart must prove in 2017 that he can get the most out of his players and avoid the lapses in preparation.
Smart knows what winning looks like, and it’s a culture he’s trying to bring to Athens. He’s said numerous times that changing a ship’s direction takes time. I believe Smart is the right man to have behind the wheel, but he needs to show improvement in Year 2.
— William McFadden, Georgia beat reporter
Answer: A better coach would have taken Georgia to Atlanta this season. Smart cost the Bulldogs against Tennessee. He put Jacob Eason in harm’s way — or allowed it to happen — on a pivotal strip sack that gave the Vols their first late lead in the final two minutes.
Then after Eason delivered a go-ahead score, it was Smart’s play-it-safe defensive call that allowed Joshua Dobbs enough time to graduate, then launch the game-winner, with pass-rushing specialist Lorenzo Carter at the back of the end zone.
The loss to Vandy was more troubling. Georgia is 7-5 but should have finished no worse than 9-3, and perhaps 10-2.
Much like we were wondering last season whether Jones and Les Miles were the right guys to lead a championship run, it’s already fair to wonder that about Smart.
Some first-time head coaches make it. Many more make it at their next school. Some championship-level coordinators are just that — and there’s zero shame in that.
The Bulldogs have been granted an unbelievable gift. Four, actually, with the return of a quartet of key juniors. The offense should average 35 points per game. The defense has playmakers. They have a kicker.
They have everything they need, except, perhaps a championship-level head coach.
— Chris Wright, executive editor
Chris Wright is Executive Editor at SaturdayDownSouth.com. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @FilmRoomEditor.